IS beheads leading Syrian antiquities scholar in Palmyra

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Islamic State Beheads Top Syrian Antiquities Scholar

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- The 81-year-old antiquities scholar had dedicated his life to exploring and overseeing Syria's ancient ruins of Palmyra, one of the Middle East's most spectacular archaeological sites. He even named his daughter after Zenobia, the queen that ruled from the city 1,700 years ago.

That dedication may have cost him his life. On Wednesday, relatives and witnesses said Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by Islamic State militants, his bloodied body hung on a pole in a main square.

Antiquities officials said they believed IS militants had interrogated al-Asaad, a long-time director of the site, trying to get him to divulge where authorities had hidden treasures secreted out of Palmyra before the extremists seized the ruins last spring.


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IS beheads leading Syrian antiquities scholar in Palmyra
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, an F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, as the U.S. on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, launched its first airstrikes by Turkey-based F-16 fighter jets against Islamic State targets in Syria, marking a limited escalation of a yearlong air campaign that critics have called excessively cautious. (Krystal Ardrey/U.S. Air Force via AP))
Left-wing protesters try to avoid the effects of tear gas fired by police, by burning barricades In Istanbul, Saturday, July 26, 2015, during clashes between police and people protesting against Turkey's operation against Kurdish militants. Turkey has bombed Islamic State positions near the Turkish border in Syria, also targeting Kurdish rebels in Iraq and carried out widespread police operations against suspected Kurdish and IS militants and other outlawed groups inside Turkey. (AP Photo/Cagdas Erdogan) TURKEY OUT
Turkish soldiers patrol with an armoured vehicle near the border with Syria, outside the village of Elbeyli, east of the town of Kilis, southeastern Turkey, Friday, July 24, 2015. Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria early Friday, government officials said, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost, killing a soldier. The bombing is a strong tactical shift for Turkey which had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. (AP Photo)
As seen from outskirts of the village of Seve, on the Turkish side of the border, a Syrian opposition group flag flies on a building in the the outskirts of the village of Havar in Syria, Friday, July 24, 2015. Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria early Friday, government officials said, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost, near the area of where the photo was taken, killing a soldier. The bombing is a strong tactical shift for Turkey which had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Map locates Diyarbakir air base in Turkey and airstrikes in Syria. (Image via AP)
Map locates Kurds in Syria. (Image via AP)
Relatives of slain soldier Mehmet Yalcin Nane, killed Thursday by IS militants when they attacked a Turkish military outpost at the border with Syria, cry during his funeral in the town of Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, Friday, July 24, 2015. Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria early Friday, government officials said, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost, killing Nane. The bombing is a strong tactical shift for Turkey which had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Protesters run away from tear gas during a demostration in Istanbul on July 24, 2015. Turkey detained 251 people in coordinated nationwide dawn raids against suspected Islamic State (IS) jihadists and Kurdish militants following a wave of deadly violence in the country, the prime minister's office said.AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish riot police fire rubber bullets to disperse protesters during a demostration in Istanbul on July 24, 2015. Turkey detained 251 people in coordinated nationwide dawn raids against suspected Islamic State (IS) jihadists and Kurdish militants following a wave of deadly violence in the country, the prime minister's office said.AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - JULY 24: A military aircraft of Turkish Air Force lands at the Incirlik 10th Tanker Base Command in Saricam district, Adana on July 24, 2015. On Friday, Turkish F-16 fighter jets hit three Daesh targets in Syria in the morning. Turkish jets carried out the operation without violating the Syrian airspace, according to a statement by the Prime Ministry. (Photo by Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian Kurdish woman sits by the window of a house in Suruc in Turkey's Sanliurfa province near the border with Syria on June 27, 2015. Kurdish forces drove Islamic State group fighters from the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobane, after a killing spree by the jihadists left more than 200 civilians dead. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken from the Turkish side of the border in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, shows a Turkish solider standing as smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on June 27, 2015, a day after a deadly suicide bombing occurred. The Islamic State group killed 164 civilians in its offensive on the Kurdish town of Kobane, in what a monitor Friday called one of the jihadists' 'worst massacres' in Syria. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
KOBANE, SYRIA - JUNE 20: (TURKEY OUT) A Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG fighters stand near a check point in the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, Syria. June 20, 2015. Kurdish fighters with the YPG took full control of Kobane and strategic city of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria. Mopping up operations have started to make the town safe for the return of residents from Turkey, after more than a year of Islamic State militants holding control of the town. (Photo by Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)
TAL ABYAD, SYRIA - JUNE 20: (TURKEY OUT) The picture shows the wreckage left by fighting on a street in the center of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, Syria. June 20, 2015. Kurdish fighters with the YPG took full control of Kobane and strategic city of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria. Mopping up operations have started to make the town safe for the return of residents from Turkey, after more than a year of Islamic State militants holding control of the town. (Photo by Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - JUNE 16: Turkish soldiers patrol as Syrian refugees walk to cross the Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 16, 2015. Kurdish fighters took full control on Tuesday of the border town of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria by cutting off a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. According to Turkish security officials 10,000 people to come across from Syria in last three days.(Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)
Turkish soldiers stand as smoke billows from the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab or Kobani following the attacks by IS militants as seen from the Turkish side of the border in Suruc, Turkey, Thursday, June 25, 2015. Islamic State militants launched two major attacks in northern Syria on Thursday, storming government-held areas in the mostly Kurdish city of Hassakeh and pushing into Kobani — the Syrian Kurdish border town they were expelled from early this year — where they set off three cars bombs, killing and wounding dozens, activists and officials said.(AP Photo)
In this still image taken from video captured on a CCTV camera, made available Thursday, June 25, 2015, an explosion is captured by a camera on the Turkish side of the border, in the Kurdish town of Kobani, Syria. Islamic State militants staged a new attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani, which famously resisted a months-long assault by the Islamic militants. The attack involved a suicide car bombing that wounded scores. (AP Photo)
A Syrian refugee carries a sick woman on his back in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, as they flee intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants, Monday, June 15, 2015. The flow of refugees came as Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, Kurdish fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, wave their yellow triangular flag in the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, Monday, June 15, 2015. Kurdish fighters captured large parts of the strategic border town of Tal Abyad from the Islamic State group Monday, dealing a huge blow to the group which lost a key supply line for its nearby de facto capital of Raqqa, a spokesman for the main Kurdish fighting force said. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2014, file photo, thick smoke from an airstrike by the US-led coalition rises in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. For four months, Syrian Kurdish fighters battled Islamic State militants in the rubble-strewn streets and crumpled buildings in the town of Kobani as U.S. aircraft pounded the extremists from the skies above. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a young Kurdish fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. Here, Kurdish fighters backed by small numbers of Iraqi peshmerga forces and Syrian rebels, are locked in what they see as an existential battle against the Islamic State group, who swept into their town in mid-September as part of a summer blitz after the Islamic State group overran large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But the battle comes with an onerous price for the town’s residents. While most managed to flee across the nearby border with Turkey, some 2,000 Kurdish civilians have opted to stay with the hope that fighting will soon subside _ a shocking contrast from the population of 50,000 that once filled these streets. (AP Photo/Jake Simkin)
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014 file photo, a military plane of the US led coalition flies above the Syrian town of Kobani, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. More than two months into its assault on Kobani, the Islamic State group still pours fighters and resources into trying to take the besieged Kurdish town, but the drive has been blunted. Aided by 270 U.S. airstrikes, the town’s determined Kurdish defenders appear to be gaining momentum, a potentially bruising reversal for the militants who only few weeks ago seemed unstoppable in their march to victory. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)
A missile is fired from Islamic State positions in Kobani, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 file photo, thick smoke and flames from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition rise in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. For a force that has built its reputation on projecting an aura of momentum and invincibility, the prolonged stalemate in Kobani is a setback for Islamic State militants with potential implications in terms of recruitment and support. Nearly two months after it launched its lightning assault on the small Kurdish town, the group is bogged down with an increasingly entrenched and costly battle in which hundreds of its fighters have been killed and a good deal of its military apparatus destroyed. (AP Photo, Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
Smoke and flames rise from an Islamic State fighters position in the town of Kobani during airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Syrian Kurdish refugees from Kobani watch fighting across the border in Kobani from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, Turkey, near the Turkey-Syria border, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Thick smoke and debris rise from an airstrike by the US-led coalition, as light from the explosion is seen, in Kobani, Syria while fighting continued between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
FILE - In this Oct, 17, 2014, file photo, Syrian Kurdish refugees who fled fighting in Kobani, Syria, go about at a refugee camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. Marking a tragic milestone, the United Nations said in a statement on Thursday, July 9, 2015 that over 4 million Syrians have fled to other countries since the outbreak of civil war in their country more than four years ago. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
Thick smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria as fighting continued between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Turkish soldier, part of a tank unit holding their position on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, overlooking Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, walks to members of the media to move them away from the tanks, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Heavy smoke from a fire caused by a military strike rises in Kobani, Syria, as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, seen from Mursitpinar in the outskirts of Suruc, Turkey, at the Turkey-Syria border, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Protesters and students of Middle East Technical University clash with riot police in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, protesting against the Islamic State group advance on the town of Kobani, Syria, and against the Turkish government. Protests have erupted against Islamic State group advances into the town of Kobani, Syria, and against the limited action by Turkey who have placed military forces to secure the border with Syria but have not engaged with the militants. (AP Photo)
A Turkish Kurd flashes the V-sign to the photographer, on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, as he watches fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of the Islamic State group, in Kobani, Syria,Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. The U.S.-led coalition pounded positions of the Islamic State group in the Syrian border town of Kobani on Thursday in some of the most intensive strikes in the air campaign so far, a Kurdish official and an activist group said. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Turkish Kurd watches as airstrikes hit Kobani, inside Syria, as fighting intensifies between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, in Mursitpinar, on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Turkish Kurd walks at Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, as smoke from a fire caused by a strike rises over Kobani, inside Syria, as fighting intensifies between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Turkish Kurdish men, standing in the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, use binoculars to watch the fighting between militants of the Islamic State group and Kurdish forces in Kobani, Syria, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Turkish soldier carries a young Syrian Kurdish refugee to board a truck near Suruc, Turkey, after the family's arrival from Kobani, as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, is just a few hundred meters inside Syria and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Turkish soldiers take their positions on a hill top at Mursitpinar near Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, overlooking Kobani in Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. Kobani and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Turkish army's armored vehicles stationed near the fighting positions between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State militants, about 10 kilometers in the west of Kobani in Syria, near Suruc, Turkey, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Turkey's parliament approved a motion that gives the government new powers to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq and to allow foreign forces to use its territory for possible operations against the Islamic State group(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
This Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 photo, shows a view of Hura, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert, Israel, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. Othman Abu al-Qiyan, an Israeli Bedouin from Hura, was a quiet whiz kid at the top of his class in Israel who overcome tough odds in this minority Arab village to become a star medical student and hospital intern, until he joined Jihadis and found his death in Syria. Several family members said all they knew is that Abu al-Qiyan left for what he said was a vacation in Turkey with a cousin. In August, they got an anonymous call saying that he had been killed in the first wave of American air raids against the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Smoke rises following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in Kobani, Syria as fighting continues between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar, on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Kurdish Rabia Ali mourns on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, at the grave of her son Seydo Mehmud 'Curo' , a Kurdish fighter, who was killed in the fighting with the militants of the Islamic State group in Kobani, Syria, and was buried at a cemetery in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border on Tuesday, Oct. 7. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
In this image shot with an extreme telephoto lens and through haze from the outskirts of Suruc at the Turkey-Syria border, militants with the Islamic State group are seen after placing their group's flag on a hilltop at the eastern side of the town of Kobani, Syria, where fighting had been intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. The flag is indicating that the jihadists may have regrouped and broken through the Kurdish lines. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Turkish soldiers in position a few hundred meters from the border line as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State around Kobani in Syria, near Suruc, Turkey, late Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Turkey's parliament approved Thursday a motion that gives the government new powers to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq and to allow foreign forces to use its territory for possible operations against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: Heavy smoke from a fire caused by a strike rises in Kobani, Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar in the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, October 10, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)
A Turkish soldier stands on a hill, facing the Islamic State (IS) fighters' new position, 10km west of the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab (Kobane) near the Syrian border at the southeastern town of Suruc in the Sanliurfa province on October 2, 2014. Islamic State fighters were at the gates on October 2 of a key Kurdish town on the Syrian border with Turkey, whose parliament was set to vote on authorising military intervention against the jihadists. Kurdish militiamen backed by US-led air strikes were locked in fierce fighting to prevent the besieged border town of Kobane from falling to IS group fighters. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Turkish medical service stands in the southeastern town of Suruc in the Sanliurfa province as Syrian Kurds cross the border between Syria and Turkey on October 1, 2014. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds flooded into Turkey fleeing an onslaught by the Islamic State (IS) group that prompted an appeal for international intervention. Some of the refugees now want to return to protect their homes and join the fight against IS militants. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 29: (TURKEY OUT) Border village of Alizar residents keep guard during the night and wait in fear from mortar fired from Islamic State fighters as they tightened their siege of the strategic town of Kobani on Syria's border with Turkey on September 29, 2014 in Sanliurfa, Turkey. Tonight more than 20 mortars hit Turkey's southeastern Turkish town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province. Turkish troops could be used to help set up a secure zone in Syria, if there was an international agreement to establish such a haven for refugees fleeing Islamic State fighters, President Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published on Saturday. Militants still held their positions around 10 kilometres west of Kobane inside Syria, witnesses said, with Kurdish positions the last line of defence between the fighters and the town. Kobane sits on a road linking north and northwestern Syria and Kurdish control of the town has prevented Islamic State fighters from consolidating their gains, although their advance has caused more than 150,000 Kurds to flee to Turkey since last week. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 28: Smoke is seen rising from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani following an explosion that was followed by further fighting, which saw IS fighters shoot into Turkey for the first time on September 28, 2014 south of Sanliurfa, Turkey. Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS and ISIL) fighters are reportedly advancing with heavy weaponry on the strategic Kurdish border town of Kobani (also called Ayn Al-Arab), which they have surrounded on three sides. Several hundred thousand refugees are reportedly in Kobani and aid agencies are bracing for a massive exodus into Turkey. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
A Kurdish boy stands as another waves to other side near the Syrian border at Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on September 25, 2014. The numbers of Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey to escape the advance of Islamic State jihadists in northern Syria has slowed considerably over the last few days, Turkish officials said on September 24.. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 23: (TURKEY-OUT) Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 23, 2014. The Syrian town of Kobani has yet again seen fierce fighting between Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish forces. Kurdish authorities have agreed to send Peshmerga fighters to the Northern Syrian town to fight ISIL after Turkey has allowed passage. (Photo by Kutluhan Cucel/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - AUGUST 09: A military aircraft belonging to the United States Air Forces lands on the runway at Incirlik Base in Adana, Turkey on August 9, 2015. Eight military aircrafts belonging to the United States Air Forces were sent to Incirlik Base in Adana as part of the operations against Daesh. (Photo by Volkan Kasik/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - AUGUST 09: A military aircraft belonging to the United States Air Forces lands on the runway at Incirlik Base in Adana, Turkey on August 9, 2015. Eight military aircrafts belonging to the United States Air Forces were sent to Incirlik Base in Adana as part of the operations against Daesh. (Photo by Volkan Kasik/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The brutal killing stunned Syria's archaeological community and underscored fears the extremists will destroy or loot the 2,000-year-old Roman-era city on the edge of a modern town of the same name, as they have other major archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq.

"We have lost not just a scholar of archaeology but one of the pillars of archaeology in the 20th century," said Ahmad Ferzat Taraqji, a 56-year-old antiquities expert and friend of the victim.

The Sunni extremists, who have imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory they control in Syria and Iraq, claim ancient relics promote idolatry and say they are destroying them as part of their purge of paganism - though they are also believed to sell off looted antiquities, bringing in significant sums of cash.

Known as "Mr. Palmyra" among Syrian antiquities experts for his authoritative knowledge and decades administering the site, al-Asaad refused to leave even after IS militants captured the town and neighboring ruins in May.

The Palmyra site was al-Asaad's life, said his nephew, an opposition activist who uses the name Khaled al-Homsi. Even when he could no longer go to the Roman ruins because of his advanced age, al-Asaad lived nearby, "and he could see the archaeological site from his house," al-Homsi told The Associated Press.

IS extremists detained the scholar three weeks ago, al-Homsi said, speaking on condition his real name not be used for fear of reprisals from IS and the Syrian government.

On Tuesday, al-Homsi watched as al-Asaad was brought in a van to a main square near a vegetable market packed with shoppers. Dressed in ordinary clothes and not the orange jumpsuits worn by other hostages before they were beheaded, al-Asaad stood as a militant read out five accusations against him, including that he was the "director of idols," represented Syria "at infidel conferences" and visited Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Then another militant pulled out a knife, at which point al-Homsi said he left the square, unable to watch. Al-Asaad's body was later hung from a pole on a main street, a paper outlining the "charges" against hung around his waist.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, said al-Asaad was a pioneer in Syrian archaeology.

He said IS had tried to extract information from him about where some of the town's treasures had been hidden in order to save them from the militants.

Palmyra was a prominent ancient city-state under the rule of the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century, its queen, Zenobia, led a revolt against Rome that briefly succeeded in holding much of the region until it was crushed. The ancient remains, including temples and dramatic colonnades, are a UNESCO world heritage site.

The brutal killing and threat to the region's archaeological treasures brought international condemnation.

Speaking in Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, "The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this murder ... of a man who dedicated his life to preserving Syria's cultural treasures."

"Like so many of ISIL's victims, his life and extraordinary work stand in stark contrast to that of his barbaric killers. These attempts to erase Syria's rich history will ultimately fail," Kirby said, using an alternate acronym for IS.

Friends and colleagues of al-Asaad said Palmyra was his life.

"He was Mr. Palmyra, you couldn't do any work in Palmyra without going through him," said Amr al-Azm, an antiquities expert and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, adding that al-Asaad was indispensable to the management of the heritage sites.

"No one's been there for consistently so long and covered so many aspects of Palmyra's cultural heritage. I think it's irreplaceable," al-Azm said, speaking from Prague.

Al-Asaad was also a hard-core supporter of President Bashar Assad, and had been a member of Syria's ruling Baath party since 1954.

Al-Homsi, who is opposed to the Syrian president, said his uncle did not believe in the uprising against Assad's rule, which erupted in March 2011 and later turned into civil war. "He did not take it seriously."

Al-Asaad had been in charge of Palmyra's archaeological site for four decades until 2003, when he retired, according to Syria's state news agency SANA. He then worked as an expert with the Antiquities and Museums Department.

Al-Asaad, who held a diploma in history and education from the University of Damascus, wrote many books and scientific texts. Among his titles are "The Palmyra Sculptures," and "Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra and the Orient."

He also discovered several ancient cemeteries, caves and the Byzantine cemetery in the garden of the Museum of Palmyra, the agency said.

"Al-Asaad was a treasure for Syria and the world," Khalil Hariri, al-Asaad's son-in-law who works at Palmyra's archaeological department, told the AP by phone from the central Syrian city of Homs. "Why did they kill him?"

Hariri said other antiquities officials who were detained by IS in the past two months had been questioned about where artifacts were hidden.

He and other colleagues said al-Asaad was central in the effort to move the contents of the Palmyra museum, including hundreds of artifacts and statues, to safety before the Islamic State group seized the town.

Hariri, who is married to al-Asaad's daughter, Zenobia, said his father-in-law is survived by six sons and five daughters.

Since falling to IS, Palmyra's ancient site has remained intact, though the militants destroyed a lion statue dating back to the 2nd century. The statue, discovered in 1975, had stood at the gates of the town museum.

In early July, IS released a video showing the killing of 20 captured government soldiers in Palmyra's amphitheater. They were shot dead by young IS members armed with pistols. Hundreds of people were seen watching the killings.

"I begged him two months ago to leave the town and come to Damascus with his family, but he refused," said Taraqji, who is director of excavations at the antiquities department in Damascus.

"He believed in destiny," Taraqji said. "He told me, `I was born in Palmyra and will stay in Palmyra and will not leave even if costs me my blood.'"

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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